10 Most Popular Backpacker Books in South East Asia

Those who have been traveling recently may have noticed that there seems to be some kind of backpacker book club on the South East Asian trail. Everywhere you look on buses and trains you will see the same titles appearing again and again (as well as South East Asia Backpacker Magazine of course!)

A quick perusal of the second hand book stores in any of the main backpacker haunts and you will see the same copies, well-thumbed and highly priced denoting their status as big hits amongst the backpacker crowd. Some travel books, some best selling thrillers, here are the top 10 most popular books that are doing the rounds on the South East Asian circuit this year. Get in with the backpacker book conversations by getting a head start on your reading before you arrive…

Mr Nice

Tip on buying books in Southeast Asia: Don’t scrimp on your literature. The book you are buying will be your best friend on many a long bus ride in the weeks to come. The 30 baht Catherine Cookson’s are in the 30 baht bargain bin for a reason!

1. Mr. Nice by Howard Marks

An auto-biography about a Welsh drug dealer dubbed the “English Toff Drugs King of the World” is hardly the kind of literature that you’d expect to be popular amongst backpackers, nevertheless this is perhaps THE most popular book in South East Asia. Maybe its the unconventional lifestyle that appeals? Perhaps it’s the incredible tales of adventure that thrill? On ferries, buses and trains backpackers can be spotted reading the cult book of this most charismatic criminal.

2. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A close second to Mr. Nice, the best selling thriller, the ‘Girl with the dragon tattoo’ has been hugely popular this year, obviously not just amongst backpackers. It is the first book in a trilogy that includes ‘The Girl who played with fire’ and ‘The girl who kicked the hornets nest.’ The author, Stieg Larsson was a journalist and magazine editor in Stockholm who died unexpectedly in November 2004, leaving three unpublished novels. This first book is an epic tale of murder and corporate trickery that you will not be able to put it down, leaving you baffled as to ‘whodunnit’.

3. The Beach by Alex Garland

Alex Garland’s epic tale of backpacking, beginning on the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok. It follows the path of a young English traveler, Richard who is given a sketched map revealing the location of a hidden beach in the Gulf of Thailand, undiscovered by tourists. Picking up a French couple on his way and after a long and arduous trip, they reach the island to discover they have been beaten to it. But the trio are accepted into the community for fear of it’s secrecy being damaged. The book easily grips the average backpacker, on their perpetual hunt for paradise, while depicting the trials and tribulations of living on a self-sufficient island, from ‘rice runs’ to shark attacks.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A thought provoking and inspiring book, The Life of Pi is a true classic of modern literature. The narrator and protagonist, Pi, named after a French swimming pool tells the story of how he survived being stranded on a lifeboat with only animals for company, including a ravenous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Having won numerous awards, Martel’s book is due to be released as a film in December 2012 starring an inexperienced student from Delhi (playing Pi) and Tobey Maguire, other wise known as Spiderman.

5. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

An EPIC read, inspired by real experiences of the author who was convicted of bank robbery and addicted to heroin. Having escaped from Pentridge Prison, Shantaram tells of his ten years on the run in India. From working as a Doctor in a Mumbai slum, to playing an extra in Bollywood films,  being recruited by the Mumbai underworld and fighting with the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, Roberts’ tall stories are admittedly partly fictional, but believeable nonetheless… Why else would his book have been destroyed by prison guards, forcing Roberts to rewrite it three times?! Don’t be put off by this novels sheer size and weight though, wear your towel as a scarf and squeeze this one in, it’s well worth it.

6. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Many travelers like to read books featuring the country in which they are traveling, in an attempt to learn more about the country’s history and population.First they Killed My Father is an absolute must read for any backpackers heading to Cambodia. Written by Loung Ung, a survivor of the brutal Pol Pot regime, it tells the story of her life, living at the time of the Khmer Rouge. This strict Communist party ruled Cambodia for four years, with their motto “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” This attitude resulted in the deaths of over a fifth of the country’s population over their brief period of rule. Loung’s moving tales of separation and hardship are guaranteed to reduce you to tears.

7. Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows

In 1978, the author of this heartbreaking yet fascinating book was sentenced to life imprisonment having been found guilty of heroin trafficking. This insight into the life of an inmate in a Bangkok jail is undoubtedly both hard to put down and hard to imagine. As you lie back in your hammock, Fellows will transport you into a shocking world of solitary confinement and sewer rats. So if you’re strapped for cash and would even consider getting involved in drugs in Thailand, consider this a terrifying warning… take out a loan instead!

8. The Girl in the Picture by Denise Chong

Inspired by the famous photograph of a young girl running naked from a napalm bomb during the Vietnam War, ‘The Girl in the Picture’ is a biographical tale of life during the war, through the eyes of Phan Thị Kim Phúc (famously photographed) and her Mother. Having been told that it was unlikely that she would survive due to the extent of her napalm burns, Kim Phúc’s life was saved by surgeons. In her own words, her experiences taught her to be “strong in the face of pain” and have since gained her recognition as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. Through a lens previously overlooked, the biography provides a glimpse into the family’s experience of Vietnamese and American relationships in that troublesome time.

9. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert calls her year-long adventure around the world “one woman’s search for everything,” and isn’t EVERYTHING all we ever want as backpackers? Ms. Gilbert begins her year in eating her way through Italy (“Eat”), then moves to India to nourish her spirit by living in an ashram (“Pray”), and ends her trip in Bali, trying to find a balance between the physical and the spiritual experiences of the first two countries (“Love”). Whatever brings you to Bali, the surf culture of Kuta and Uluwatu or the monkey forests of Ubud, the people and the island have captured many a heart. Grab a copy of Eat Pray Love for the beach and begin your own search for everything.

10. The Alchemist by Paolo Ceolho

The motto of this fable states that “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” . However unbelievable this may seem having experienced the quirky ways of life as a traveller, you can’t help but wonder if there is indeed a grand plan for us all? This is the magical story of Santiago, an Andalucian shepherd boy, who sets out to follow a dream which he believes to be prophetic. On his journey, he seeks treasure but encounters love, disaster and learning along the way. Now translated into 67 languages and with a Guinness World Record under it’s belt, this should definitely make it onto your ‘must-read’ list and has been dubbed one of the best travel books of all time…

Which books would make YOUR TOP 10 List of Backpacker Reads?


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